‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ An Interview with Sam Koji Hale

With an all star cast and beautiful puppets, scenery and camerawork, ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ is set to be a box-office hit.  The feature length film by Dark Dunes Productions, is supported by executive producers Heather Henson and Toby Froud and has been described as an epic adventure in the tradition of Dark Crystal.  In an exclusive interview for Puppet Place News, Director Sam K. Hale told us about his influences, his love for practical effects and the highs and lows of making an all puppet feature film.

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Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ has been described as “in the tradition of Dark Crystal with a strong dose of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke.” This eclectic aesthetic fuses influences from many cultures. How does this reflect your own background as a creative practitioner and filmmaker?

Growing up with a blended East-West cultural background, I try to infuse my interest and passion for Japanese/Asian art and culture as primary wellsprings of inspiration. This includes animated films by directors such as Hayao Miyazaki and the late Satoshi Kon, as well as classic comic artist Tezuka Osamu’s ‘The Phoenix’ or works by the 19th century woodblock artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Their themes of modern vs traditional, humans in a machine world, or conversely, humans longing for nature, as well as the struggle with power and resistance against imperialism, are also my themes.

For example, you’ll see direct and indirect connections between such Yoshitoshi imagery as ‘Saito Oniwakamaru on a Carp’ or ‘Ushiwaka and Benkei duelling on Gojo Bridge’ and specific story beats in ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’.  Yoshitoshi’s work, in particular, was born out of an era of Japanese culture under direct threat from Western dominance and that shows in the conflict and dynamic style of his work.  I think we live in a era now where that kind of cultural milieu continues both as western ideas pressure other traditions, and also all traditions struggle under pressure of losing their identity under the feet of modernity and technology’s march. These are issues that I wrestle with in my creative work as a 21st century artist.

One Japanese concept that I draw upon in ‘Yamasong’ is that of a world filled with spirits, or kami. For example, clouds are pregnant with spirit, and hold the potential of being freed or “conjured” by the hands of a trained practitioner. Rocks, trees, water and fire – all these things have spirit too. It’s an animistic world in ‘Yamasong’, but layered in or trapped under technology from outsiders.

In Japan, puppets and dolls have the same word – ningyo. Dolls are traditionally believed to have spirit in Japan. I find it especially appropriate to be telling this story with puppets, as they take on a magical kind of existence in the story that starts to feel real and tangible. In this story, the traditional world is filled with kami, but we also discover that the automata brought to this world also display a kind of spirit.

I’m inspired with ideas from multiple cultures.  The concept of Russian nesting dolls plays a key reveal later in the Yamasong story.  An important character is inspired by that, blended with Joan of Arc and Humpty Dumpty archetypes. There’s a movement in literature called the New Weird movement and if anything, I would say my creative work is a cousin to these works, but as films.  I’d also say that since I am a blend of East and West, that’s the voice I bring to the conversation of world culture, and I hope it brings growth and fresh perspective to that conversation.

 

Yamasong’ is an ambitious project that has developed from a short into a feature. Feature length puppet films are notoriously challenging in their production. What inspired you to develop the project beyond its original short film format? What challenges has the film’s production presented, and what rewards?

Yamasong’ is my grand experiment to see how I can take everything I’ve learned in my career so far – my experience in writing, storytelling, designing, fabricating, shooting and visual effects – and lay it out on the table with this film! What is this thing that is coming out of me, and how does it evolve as other artists touch it and infuse it with their creativity and passion? How will people respond to it in the end? I’m very curious to find out!

After making the short film, I didn’t think there would be life for it after the festivals, but I’d hoped there might be. After the short film won Best Animated Film at Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival, I shopped it around to the studios in L.A. Sadly, it was rejected over and over because ‘Yamasong’ wasn’t mainstream, it wasn’t a pre-existing property, it wasn’t a sequel or a remake. I was very frustrated by how close-minded these studio people were. So I shelved it and went back to looking for a regular paycheck and new projects.

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The short film sat on a shelf for three years until I met Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki, a Kickstarter backer. He asked if I had any feature ideas, I showed him ‘Yamasong’ on my iPad, and he said, “Let’s make it into a film!” It’s been an amazing experience from that day forward. I realize it’s not everyday that something like this happens, that someone backs a feature film, so I count my blessings!

Having worked in puppetry for fifteen years, I know that very few puppet feature films get made. Other than the Muppets that have Disney’s deep pockets to rely upon, the last all-puppet features to be made were ‘Team America’ and ‘Strings’, both in 2004. Before that ‘Legend of the Sacred Stone’  in 2001. And before that…..? ‘Dark Crystal’ (1982) and ‘Labyrinth’ (1986) maybe?

I think the first big hurdle is the funding. I think the challenge is convincing non puppet-friendly investors to take a chance on puppet films. The gap between the late ’80s puppet masterpieces and the early 2000s puppet films also suggests an era where digital animation was supplanting puppetry and practical effects throughout the film industry. Studios, producers and money people were moving away from practical effects to the new realm of digital effects and animation. I’d like to think there are some signs of that trend reversing now, that practical effects and puppets are coming back, as seen in blockbusters like ‘Star Wars: Force Awakens’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. One can only hope, and I’m excited for the new puppet films of this century.

Most people working in film will tell you filmmaking is challenging work. We just complicate it a tad with puppets! The challenges with puppets certainly amplifies some aspects of filmmaking.  Where do we hide puppeteers, or light a shot with puppets if the puppeteer is visible?  How do we use digital effects to take out rods and puppeteers?  How do we nuance a performance that requires a puppet changing props?  How do we overcome the very limitations of the puppet style – strings for marionettes, rods for tabletop, etc.? These are all challenges for certain, but I think those of us working in puppetry appreciate a good challenge!

Ultimately the challenge and reward are one and the same. Showing that a puppet film is not impossible – that’s the challenge and reward for me. Getting to tell a story that began as a mere 8 minute short inspired by an amazing piece of music and watching it blossom into a 100 minute film, is an unbelievable reward. Getting to see these the characters face challenges and overcome their limitations, is an amazing reward. Putting it out to the public, hoping they will respond to it, find their favorite character to root for, and being successful enough to allow us to make a future installment – that would be priceless. But we take each day at a time, looking forward with hopeful optimism, and dreaming of sharing the art and the joy of puppetry – that’s my attitude.

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It seems that traditional special effect processes are enjoying a resurgence in the film industry at the moment. How do practical effects connect with audiences in ways that their digital equivalents do not, in your opinion? What does the medium of traditional puppetry lend itself to the narrative of ‘Yamasong’ in particular? Did you always conceive of ‘Yamasong’ as a puppet film (as opposed to other animated formats, digital or traditional?)

Current American blockbusters seemed obsessed with bombarding the eyes and ears with spectacle and crafted noise, but one thing that film does not stimulate is the sense of touch. There is something very powerful and basic about the tickling of that sense through form, texture, delicacy, hardness. One of the draws of practical effects and puppets is their real tangibility. Yes we capture them on film, which flattens the object, but I believe there is, at least on some conscious or sub-conscious level, the understanding and draw toward the real.

That’s one very strong reason I have been drawn to puppets. They have substance beyond the surface, the superficial, which is more than digital effects have. Digital effects can emulate all of these aspects, but there’s nothing that beats real light bathing real textures, shadows crawling across form, delicate reflections off shiny surfaces or the discovery of tiny woven pattern of threads in fabric.

At the time I was thinking about making a short like ‘Yamasong’, I always thought it would be a puppet film. I had been talking to my friend Shoji Kameda, an amazing musician and composer, about a puppet/taiko collaboration. We met at the first project I’d produced, a live anti-war Japanese folktale called ‘Fox Lantern’. He loved the tabletop-style puppets and live performance aspect so much, he approached me about collaborating with music and puppets! So it was never a question about doing ‘Yamasong’ in any other medium.

Three years passed and one day Shoji gave me a copy of his group On Ensemble’s new album. He asked me to listen to it and see if any song inspired me for a puppet project. The first track, which ended up being ‘Yamasong’, inspired these visuals of a fantastic journey to the top of a mountain. When I pitched it to Shoji, he loved it. The next challenge was how to pay for the short film.  I approached Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams. Heather liked my pitch, her company funded it, and we made the original short film.

Yamasong’ to me is set in a puppet world. Simple as that. My first visions as I listened to the music were puppets struggling up a mountainside, puppets rescuing each other, puppets flying on fantastical beasts, living in this imagined world that was heavy with Japanese influence. It’s a world without humans, so it really has to be puppets or animation. But the big reason I’ve kept it puppets is because of how tangible and real puppets are. You can’t get that feeling on a small budget any other way – animation would cost too much.

Yamasong’ also harks back to storytelling of older times. There are elements of Japanese folklore layered in there. There’s inspiration from Balinese shadow puppets in there. There’s even some Punch and Judy fighting, albeit refined puppet violence. And there’s a ton of inspiration from ‘Dark Crystal’  in ‘Yamasong’.  I can’t think outside the puppet box because there is so much flavor and variety inside it!

I will say (and this is where I may get in trouble with some of my puppet peers) my attitude is that puppetry can benefit from digital animation (and vice versa). I think of it like this; if we see so many cases where a live actor on wires or animated characters are moving or flying through digitally created environments, why is it puppets can’t be doing the same thing? I’d rather see a puppet with some digital enhancement standing in the spotlight than a fully digital animated character. So in ‘Yamasong’ we incorporate some digital enhancements like eye blinks and some mouth movement, and we use digital set extensions and environments. I like to think, as modern artists, we can use all the tools in the toolbox, from the oldest forms of puppetry to the newest digital techniques.

 

 

The US is leading the way in puppet filmmaking; with several high profile projects finding support from the next generation of puppetry producers (we note that Toby Froud and Heather Henson are both executive producers for ‘Yamasong’.) What could the future of puppet filmmaking be? How would you like that future to look?

I’ve been working with Heather Henson as a producer for her Handmade Puppet Dreams series for six years now. I like to think we’ve played a significant role in bringing more puppet short films to audiences. I’ve been told that festivals are starting to open up their definition of what films to accept, and that puppet films aren’t rejected outright, as many once were. We’re starting to get some respect in this area. So I call this progress. The venues are growing and the audience is growing.

I’ve also been very fortunate in my life’s journey to meet the folks at Dark Dunes Productions and their founder Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki. They have a passion for making projects with practical creatures and love puppets.  It is only through support of people like Sultan and Heather that puppet films like ‘Yamasong’ get the resources to blossom beyond mere ideas. This is a great start – we are pioneers here! I hope more people start backing puppet-based projects.

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The puppet film field needs to continue to expand. We’ve got a fledgling field of puppet filmmakers now coming out of a decade or so of new ideas, new approaches, new cameras, easier and cheaper means of making a film but it is still a struggle. What I think needs to happen is the broader film-going audience have to discover puppet films, fall in love and start demanding more. Then the films make profits and more investors start eyeing puppetry as a place to invest their money.

If this happens, then I’d say we’ll start seeing more and more puppet films getting made. And that’s my hope! I really do hope that this field grows and many of the young filmmakers that are out there get their chance to make a film, or two or more.  I’ve met so many talented people in this often overlooked and under appreciated field, and my dream is for them to get to push their creativity to its furthest reaches and tell their stories on film.

Interview by Emma Windsor


Currently in post production, ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ is due to reach our cinema screens very soon.  To get a taste for the film, watch the trailer on Vimeo and keep up-to-date with all the latest news via the Dark Dunes Productions website, Twitter and Facebook.

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